God is renowned in Judah;
in Israel his name is great.
His tent is in Salem,
his dwelling-place in Zion.
There he broke the flashing arrows,
the shields and the swords, the weapons of war.
One of the greatest of all the Church’s hymns derives from the Liturgy of St James (4th Century) in the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox tradition. It is a hymn often associated with Christmas and amidst all the noise and bustle of the festive season its opening line, ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand,’ always seems particularly appropriate.
‘Fear’ is a word that crops up in this Psalm (vv. 7, 8, 11, 12). For some people religion is about an unhealthy apprehension about God, fear of keeping on the good side of a heavenly judge who is out get you for any minor misdemeanour. When Richard Dawkins launched his atheist bus campaign, he did so with the slogan, ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Karl Marx stated that fear of God was a means of social control, keeping the poor in their place. Fear is often seen as being wholly negative, a dread of something or someone. However, the Hebrew word (yara`) could be translated in a more positive sense as ‘awe’ or ‘reverence’, the emphasis being not on anxiety but on admiration.
There is a similar ambiguity in the idea of judgement which also features in this Psalm. For many the idea of judgement is unwelcome – it is frequently understood to be just about retribution and punishment, so religion is repressive and, as Dawkins hinted, prevents us from enjoying life. However, in scripture judgement is often welcomed – the judges in the book that bears that name are heroes, champions who rescue the oppressed. C.S. Lewis commented that they ‘are more like Jack the Giant Killer than like a modern judge in a wig. The knights in romances of chivalry who go about rescuing distressed damsels and widows from giants and other tyrants are acting almost as “judges” in the old Hebrew sense.’
The Psalm reminds us that God can be angry, very angry (v. 7) but there is a constancy about God’s anger. God’s wrath is not human anger, it is not arbitrary, flaring up or lashing out for no good reason. Rather ‘God’s wrath is but the fire of his love’ (Karl Barth).
God is absolutely committed to removing every trace of evil from his creation. His plan for his creation, as verses 1–3 make clear, is one of peace. In the beginning creation was good and at the end it shall be good but in order for that purpose to be achieved God must deal with all that has spoiled the goodness of his world (vv. 5, 6).
In the light of God’s holy loving wrath (or wrathful love), we are called to repent and to keep on repenting, to turn away from the evil and self-centredness in our lives and to make sure that we are on his side, seeking his kingdom of justice and joy. The gifts we bring (v. 11) are lives that are lived in his service, loving him with all our heart and loving both neighbour and enemy as ourselves.